Smart machines: Will they take your job?

Summary:Chief information officers need to plan for smart machines to replace workers and boost profit margins. You may not like the outcome.

ORLANDO — The so-called digital workforce — smart machines that take over tasks and work handled by humans — is likely to have wide ramifications and cause some serious technology, social and political disruption.

At the Gartner Symposium and ITXpo, analysts have been telling CXOs that they need to start laying the groundwork for the digital workforce. Smart machines — think IBM's Watson — that will replace human labor. These machines will learn, adapt and automate decision-making on many levels. Humans will train and program these machines and then hand over their paycheck.

The upshot is that this smart machine revolution is going to create some serious upside to the economy. Profit margins will improve, companies will be more nimble and manufacturing, which will be taken over by robots at some point, becomes more efficient.

But first, there are the growing pains. Smart machines will mean dislocation for workers. Gartner's advice to IT leaders goes like this:

  • Get ahead of the smart machine trend and start investigating. 

  • Determine the impact on IT pros. IT will take a direct hit. 

  • Respect the human disruption and ethical, moral and social issues.

Gartner analyst Kenneth Brant said by 2020 smart machines will absorb millions of jobs. CIOs that don't prep for a digital workforce will likely have short careers, said Brant. He added:

It's worth remembering that IT cost is typically about four percent of annual revenue, whereas the labor costs that can be rationalized by smart machines are as high as 40 percent of revenue in some knowledge and service industries.

smart machines

The impact from smart machines will be wide ranging:

  • There will be political and union fallout. 

  • Protests will ensue. 

  • Consumers will eye "built by humans" products.

  • Smart machines will create new jobs. 

  • Morality becomes an issue amid smart machine accidents and failures in the field.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this smart machine workforce is that high-skilled positions — like those in the tech industry — will be nuked. These are the positions many are pushing as the payoff to get kids coding and other tech meets education initiatives. To wit:

  • Specialists' jobs will disappear as machines take over. 

  • Medium skills jobs will be aided by machines in 2023, but replaced in 2030.

  • Low skilled positions are all automated over time. 

  • In the end, you have superhero workers lording over the machines.

We'll be looking at this issue going forward. For now, the opinion on the impact on smart machines will vacillate between optimism and pessimism. You're either wide-eyed about the smart machine revolution or ready to duck.

Topics: Emerging Tech

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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